418 — Building Independence by Self-Shrinking a Large Group to a Working Team

The workplace is filled with opportunities to tap into the spirit of Independence, a powerful value that runs deep in every individual and throughout our nation. Engaging this spirit is highly motivating, as the following story shows.

I grew up in Australia, not knowing the meaning of the Fourth of July. Recently I moved to the small town of Larkspur just north of San Francisco where I regularly enjoyed our hometown Independence Day parade — a delightful expression of grass-roots America. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died just hours apart on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, a major life achievement for Adams and Jefferson, capped the long effort of the colony to break free from the oppressive, often authoritarian control of England.

History is filled with stories of oppressed people struggling for their independence. Modern corporations can tap into that same spirit we each share — to be independent adults, free-thinking, responsible, valued and creative.

An Opportunity for Employee Independence

In a California unionized facility of a national company, I worked with the managers to establish employee problem-solving teams. One particular issue — Forced Work at Weekends — was contentious and divisive. Some employees liked the overtime pay. Many hated the disruptions to their family life. Management invited volunteers to form an employee group to study the issue and develop alternatives.

Twenty-four people volunteered. Management decided to select twelve people as a workable group. I suggested they facilitate a problem-solving meeting with the volunteers with the subject, “Reduce the 24 volunteers to a working group of 12 people.” The management team was skeptical that the first-line employees could successfully reduce their group’s size. However they had already accepted the logic of the cultural Golden Rule: “If people are affected by a decision, they should be involved in it.” Because it was my suggestion, and because the meeting was potentially difficult, they asked me to facilitate the discussion.

Creating an Effective, Self-Determined Work Group, or “Look, We Shrank Ourselves!”

All 24 volunteers came and I outlined a process they could use to cut their numbers. “First, you decide on your selection criteria. Then you vote and rank order everyone against the criteria. You take the top 12 and see if they are OK. The results are in your hands.”

Everyone agreed and I could tell they were very excited by the sense of control they would have over this decision. The criteria they listed were fairly straightforward. The final group should represent:

    • Each department.
    • Different age groups.
    • People who want to work weekends and people who don’t.
    • People who are angry and outspoken and people who will speak up for others.

I passed out copies of a sheet of paper with everyone’s name on it and asked them to keep their selection criteria in mind while privately ranking their top 12 candidates. This took 10 minutes or so. I tallied the results and made a copy for each person. I asked them to look at their selection of top 12 vote getters and compare them against their selection criteria, “If we go with those top 12, do they represent the areas you said should be represented?” The response was a resounding “Absolutely!”

Everyone left the meeting surprised, impressed, proud, and pleased with what they had accomplished. Those who did not make the cut may have been disappointed, but because they were part of the decision, they were very satisfied with the result.

Management was more than pleased

The management team’s response to the 12 names was; “That is an exceptionally good group. We couldn’t have done better ourselves. If we had done the selection, there would have been a lot of opposition to our decision, particularly from those not chosen. I think we’ll use this process again.”

cc 418 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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Posted in: Topics and Issues — People

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